By James Owen
Conserving virgin rain forests and their fauna is one thing. But preserving their people?
For many Westerners, the ideal wilderness would seem to be one without humans. From safari reserves to television wildlife documentaries, their spoiling presence is excluded. But in countries where these indigenous tribes persist, there’s another perception: this being the 21st century, not some prehistoric Eden, they should get with the program. If they choose to live like savages, that’s their problem.
Fiona Watson of Survival International, the only group to campaign for tribal rights worldwide, first saw the attitude towards South American Indians in their own lands in the 1980s, when, in her previous incarnation as a linguist, she studied the language of the Quechua in the Peruvian Andes.
“Here were the Quechua, who’d been here since pre-Inca times–it was their land and their country–and yet there was so much discrimination and racism against them,” Watson recalls. “That’s when I got interested in the whole issue of indigenous tribes.”
Survival researcher Fiona Watson, with the Akuntsu tribe in Brazil.
Photo © Survival
In her 20 years as a researcher and field director with Survival, Watson has followed the trail of discrimination up to ministerial level. “A lot of the governments look on these people as backward and primitive, and that is often used as a pretext for taking over their land,” she says. “There’s a tendency to look at them and say, ‘Oh, well, actually, they’re the ones who have to catch up and join our world.’ ”
Her campaigning work currently focuses on the “uncontacted tribes” of the vast Amazon Basin. These elusive–and, in the opinion of many officials, mythical–peoples made the headlines globally in 2008 when photographs showed brightly painted members of one such tribe firing arrows at a government surveillance aircraft.
Uncontacted Indians in Brazil, May 2008. Many are under increasing threat from illegal logging over the border in Peru. Survival International estimates that there are over 100 uncontacted tribes worldwide.
Photos © GLEISON MIRANDA/FUNAI
The photos were taken in the state of Acre, northwest Brazil, where the country’s Indian affairs department, FUNAI, estimates there could be up to 600 uncontacted Indians living in four groups.
The Matis are a recently contacted tribe.
Photos © Fiona Watson/Survival
Another uncontacted tribe of some 300 individuals, living in the Massacó territory, has been identified in the neighboring state of Rondônia. Watson says the overall estimated number in Brazil has grown rapidly–from an estimated 20-40 uncontacted groups to more than 70 in the space of just several years. Similarly isolated Amazon tribes are reported in Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador.
Ironically, “the more penetration there is of the Amazon, the more reports there are of these people,” Watson says. She suspects the reason why they have remained hidden for so long from the outside world is that they have deliberately avoided contact with it.
Fiona Watson on a research trip to the with the Waiapi tribe in Brazil.
Photo © Survival
Those in western regions likely represent the remnants of rain forest peoples who were decimated during the Amazon rubber boom of the late 19th century, when colonists tapped into the latex-producing rubber trees. “I think that historic memory is still there, so they regard any outsider with suspicion,” she adds. “They aren’t so isolated that they aren’t aware what’s happening around them.”
Common infections that didn’t hinder those who carried them into the Amazon proved deadly to native populations. “Isolated indigenous people are much more susceptible because they haven’t got immunity to things like flu or measles,” Watson said. “The uncontacted people have no immunity at all.”
An aerial photograph of an Urueu Wau Wau village.
Photo © Fiona Watson/Survival
Before 1987, when FUNAI ended its policy of establishing contact with these groups and trying to integrate them into mainstream society, it wasn’t unusual for 50 percent of a tribe to be wiped out in the first year, Watson says. Today’s colonizers carry an additional threat–automatic weapons. “If there’s a chance encounter with an uncontacted group it could easily escalate into violence. Indians with bows and arrows are simply no match.”
In the western Amazon region, where encroachment by cattle ranchers, loggers, miners and farmers is greatest, at least one vulnerable group, known as the Indians of the Rio Pardo, is thought to have been the victim of a genocide which is under federal investigation. Miners have reportedly boasted of killings, but because the tribe is uncontacted, and its numbers are unknown, gathering evidence is a difficult task, Watson says.
Uncontacted indian’s abandoned hut, Rio Pardo, Brazil
One of the tribal peoples in Rondônia who will be affected by the Madeira dams and related infrastructure.
The Akuntsu were contacted in 1997 and live in Rondonia in the Madeira dams region.
The Santo Antonio dam being built on the Madeira river is very near to several groups of uncontacted Indians.
James Owen has been a journalist for 15 years, first as a news and sub-editor for national and regional newspapers in the U.K., then as a freelance writer and columnist. Specializing in science, history, the environment, natural history and fly-fishing, he writes both for print and online media, including National Geographic News. He is currently writing a natural history book about trout.
Additional information about uncontacted tribes: